Elijah was the first free Black child born in the Canadian town of Buxton. His parents—as well as most of the adults in his town—were once slaves in the United States who escaped to freedom in Canada. For Elijah and his friends, ringing the freedom bell when an escaped slave arrives in Buxton is always exciting, but the true meaning of freedom becomes more real as Elijah grows toward adulthood and has some dangerous adventures of his own.
By exploring the history of slavery through the characters of a free town, Christopher Paul Curtis captures the utter joy of freedom in a rare and beautiful way. Even with slavery such a recent and raw memory in his community, growing up in a free town, Elijah (like most of his readers) is somewhat naive and ignorant of what a captive life really feels like. This novel is Elijah’s coming-of-age story by which he comes to understand and appreciate more fully his family’s and community’s history. And through his story, the reader will come to experience the same. Curtis does not shy away from the horrors of slavery nor does he rely on violence and drama to propel his plot. I highly recommend this novel to middle grade readers who want to read some really good, character-driven historical fiction.